Wildlife shelter to soar with new facility

Shelter director Kol Medina stands in the 2,400-square-foot flight cage. - Brad Camp
Shelter director Kol Medina stands in the 2,400-square-foot flight cage.
— image credit: Brad Camp

Allowing a visitor to the West Sound Wildlife Shelter to view its resident bald eagle as she perches hunched over in a 5-by-10-foot cage is all that Kol Medina has to do to illustrate the need for the new “flight cage.”

For the eagle, the shelter’s executive director explains, the flight cage is its last hope. If it can’t relearn how to fly in this new facility, which will allow it to spread its wings and soar for the first time since it was shot down above Blakely Harbor in March 2008, chances are it will be euthanized.

When the eagle was shot in the breast, it fell hard to the ground. It healed from the flesh wounds but appeared to have neurological problems; later it was discovered that a vertebrae in its neck was fractured. The injury hindered its ability to vocalize and apparently to fly.

The malady became evident when Mike Pratt, the shelter’s director of wildlife services, took the bird outdoors to see if it could fly by using a creance, a long, fine cord attached to a leash to prevent escape during training. The eagle remained grounded.

So, much is riding on the opening of the shelter’s flight cage on Saturday. Medina is expecting at least 70 people to witness the new facility’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and the reaction of its new inhabitants – the wounded eagle, three orphaned eaglets, a peregrine falcon and an osprey – when they are placed in their new home.

Midweek, Fairbank Construction workers were still busy finishing the flight cage, which is 60-by-40 feet in area and 20 feet tall. Its roof is made of vinyl-coated rigid wire and its floor is pea gravel sitting on concrete (to keep predators out). The unusual facility is the brainchild of Pratt, who used his 20 years of experience with raptors in wildlife shelters to design the oversized cage.

One of its more intriguing aspects includes sliding doors that can enclose some areas or move to form a U-shaped area of about 100 feet in length that will allow the birds, especially the eagles, to turn in flight.

Pratt believes the facility is matched only by Avian Haven in Freedom, Maine, and its size will help quicken recovery.

“I’ve seen a lot of different approaches over the years, and we’ve incorporated a lot of them into one,” Pratt said. “Raptors are like flying athletes and they have to be 100 percent healthy when released into the wild. This will allow them to get there much faster.”

The 25,000-square-foot building is a huge improvement over the pole-netted aviaries used in most zoos and in some wildlife shelters. Such facilities are often too small for raptors and dangerous because of wings getting caught in the netting. Predators also find them easy to enter.

It’s unfortunate, because placing an animal in an outdoor enclosure is the third, and perhaps most important, of the three stages of returning them to their natural environment. Triage and hospital care are critical to begin bringing an injured animal back to health, but the effectiveness of the final stage determines whether an eagle, for example, will ever return to the wild.

“It’s like a human in physical therapy after an injury,” Pratt said. “For our girl (the eagle), we hope the cage will do that because she will be able to go at her own pace. It’s really her last hope.”

The flight cage and the waterfowl enclosure, which will begin construction later this year, are part of a $575,000 funding project to increase the shelter’s third stage of rehabilitation. When they are completed, Medina hopes the 10-year-old shelter will be able to increase its capacity, which has been hindered by the lack of outdoor enclosures.

The number of animals being aided at the shelter continues to increase – from 722 all of last year to 684 through the first eight months of 2009. Why?

“More people are moving into the rural areas, which leads to more injuries by wildlife because of more contact with humans,” Medina said. “Also, we’re getting the word out more that we are here to help.”

The project has received $365,000 to date, thanks to a $108,000 donation by the C. Keith Birkenfeld Foundation and $50,000 coming from the State Fish & Wildlife Department. The remainder of the donations have come from private donors, 90 percent of whom are islanders. And more is needed.

“Obviously, this is important to this community,” Medina said. “And it’s also a necessary facility for the region since there isn’t anything close to this new flight cage in Western Washington. It’ll be the same with the waterfowl facility. Now, we’ll be able to help more animals.”

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